By Cecil Kuhne
One fine summer day we slipped our kayaks into the sparkling clear waters that would become the object of our pursuit for the next week. The jade-green river was calm and glassy here, and the boats swished their wakes so cleanly that the water seemed to crack with the intrusion.
The kayaks glided down the river with amazingly little effort, and the rhythmic movement of a double-bladed paddles made our progress all the more enchanting. The mild stretch of whitewater we met downstream was crisply negotiated, and a few of us practiced our rolls, just to be sure we still could. When we eventually reached the take-out, we were ready to return immediately and start all over again.
On that trip we were reminded that kayaking is truly an intriguing and personal endeavor. The adage that you don’t sit in a kayak, you wear it, is true. Contrary to popular misconception, kayaks are relatively easy to paddle, and you don’t need a high level of experience to run mild waves or whitewater in them. Except for a few radical designs, kayaks are not uncontrollably tippy, and with their low center of gravity, most of them are quite stable after you gain a little experience.
What Type of Kayaking Will You Do?
There are almost as many kayak models on the market as there are destinations for the sport. So, the first step in purchasing a kayak is to identify your needs. Do you want a racing kayak? One to tackle rapids? One to take touring for a week in the wilderness? How often will you use it? How much are you willing to spend? After you’ve considered these and many other questions, the next step is to study the differences among the myriad choices.
What Are the Different Types of Kayaks?
Kayaks can be divided into four general categories: Recreational kayaks are all-around boats designed for mild river trips and other casual use on bays and ponds. They are generally wider and shorter than touring kayaks, which makes them easier to turn but more difficult to travel in a straight line).
Touring kayaks are often designed for extended wilderness trips and all the gear they entail. These long kayaks are very stable and have good carrying capacity, but because they track well, they do not turn as easily as shorter boats. They are sometimes called sea kayaks, though they’re certainly not restricted to the ocean. Some models are designed for day touring, offering less storage space in exchange for lighter weight and improved maneuverability.
Whitewater kayaks are designed with exceptional maneuverability to negotiate rapids. They are shorter, and can have rounded bottoms or flat planing hulls, and more rocker (upturn in the ends) to deal with waves. They are not enjoyable for touring, because they are difficult to paddle in a straight line.
Whitewater kayaks have gone through a lot of evolution in the last five or six years, so we’ve given them their own section here. Read all about it: Whitewater Basics.
Downriver kayaks are specialty boats designed to travel quickly through the water, and they are most often used for racing. These boats are very long and narrow, making them tippy and not well suited for novice paddlers. Their straight keel allows them to track efficiently, but they’re difficult to turn.
What About the Kayak’s Dimensions?
Length: Longer kayaks have a number of advantages: they are usually easier to paddle, more stable, and capable of carrying heavier loads with less loss of performance. They also track better, move faster, and glide farther with each stroke than shorter boats, allowing greater efficiency with less effort.
Shorter kayaks, on the other hand, are no doubt lighter, less expensive (depending on material choice, of course), less cumbersome, and easier to transport. But their most important virtue is quicker turns. A short hull is also preferable for paddling on narrow streams, and for smaller individuals and children.
Width: The width of a kayak has a definite influence on the boat’s handling characteristics. The primary function of width is stability. But handling is sacrificed for that extra width, and a narrow kayak does not work very well in strong currents.
Additional width does add to a boat’s carrying capacity (though not as much as length), but kayaks that are really wide require a lot of effort to paddle, because the hull has to push aside a lot more water.
How Do Hulls Differ?
The general principles of kayak design are really quite simple. Hulls with flat bottoms, hard chines (sharp, nearly right-angle edges where bottom and sides meet), and greater flare (curvature of the sides outward) have greater stability. Conversely, round hulls with soft chines (a gradual curve where bottom and sides meet) and less flare have less stability, but are more nimble and easier to roll if they should tip over.
A long, skinny kayak with a bow shaped like a narrow V will be fast, because the bow slices through the water rather than piling it up in front of the boat. If instead you make a kayak that is broad in the beam and carry that fullness forward and aft, you have a freighter, not a racer. That kayak might be great for carrying big loads and riding waves, but it will not be quick or very nimble.
Symmetry: Kayaks are either symmetrical, which means that the front half and the back half of the kayak have the same shape, or asymmetrical, which means that they don’t.
Symmetry affects not only the efficiency of the boat as it moves through water, but also its ability to turn. Symmetrical boats are better for quick maneuvering, as in negotiating small streams or whitewater. Asymmetrical boat designs usually lengthen and streamline the bow for more efficient and faster passage through the water. Directional control is increased, but turning ability is decreased.
There are two types of asymmetrical shapes: fishform and Swedeform. Fishform boats have more volume fore (ahead) of the midpoint, and Swedeform have more volume aft (behind) of the midpoint.
Rocker: The upturn of the kayak’s hull from one end to the other (as viewed from the side of the kayak) is called rocker. Kayaks with a lot of rocker pivot easily because their ends sit higher in the water and offer less resistance to waves. However, they do not track well. Kayaks with little rocker track much better because they resist the turning forces of waves, current, wind, and inefficient paddling strokes. As a result, they do not turn as easily when the paddler applies a proper turning stroke or lean.
Bottom Shapes: The bottom of a kayak (as viewed from its ends) ranges from flat to V-shaped. Flat-bottomed kayaks seem very stable at first. Rounded hulls are initially less stable than flat bottoms, but they have greater secondary stability when the boat is leaned. The more pronounced the V-shape on the bottom, the better the boat’s directional control, but the worse its initial stability. Flat planing hulls are common on whitewater boats, while more rounded bottoms are favored by touring-kayak designers.
Chines: The transition between the bottom of the kayak and its sides is called the chine. An abrupt, nearly right-angle transition is called a hard chine, and a smoother, more rounded one is a soft chine.
Flare is defined as the angle of a kayak’s sides outward from the hull. Kayaks with flared sides have greater stability, but are more difficult to roll.
Volume: You’ll commonly hear kayakers refer to the volume of a boat. This is literally the amount of space inside the boat, which is expressed in terms of gallons or liters.
These days, there are more kayak designs from which to choose than ever before. Try to paddle as many different models as you possibly can, and look for the one that fits your most frequent style of paddling. And don’t forget: there’s no law that says you can’t have more than one kayak.